The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is under unusual pressure concerning their operation of whole body scanners (advanced imaging devices, in TSA-speak). Members of Congress are demanding that TSA release their records regarding the radiation safety of scanners and the scientists behind development of MRI machines released a report that current airport scanners don’t work.

Radiation questions
USAToday doing research for an article about the radiation dangers and health risks of the backscatter x-ray whole body scanners were rebuffed by TSA when they asked for records of inspections and maintenance records for these giant x-ray machines.

After an intense period of published concerns about the safety of these airport x-ray machines prior to the Thanksgiving travel period, the newspaper decided to get the records from TSA about whether the machines are as safe as TSA claims. It is easy to spout platitudes about overall safety of the airport scanners, both whole-body and the larger baggage scanners found tucked away in the baggage handling systems of airports.

Travelers rely on the TSA to ensure that the full-body X-ray machines don’t deliver more than the small radiation dose necessary to see through clothing. TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball offered this reassurance: “All radiation surveys conducted to date have found radiation emissions to be below the applicable national standard.”

Based on a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the TSA and its maintenance contractors failed in the past to detect when some X-ray machines used on baggage emitted radiation beyond what regulations allow. The report shows some machines were missing protective lead curtains or had safety features disabled by TSA employees with duct tape, paper towels and other materials.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general asking them to investigate the effectiveness of the TSA’s X-ray inspection program for full-body scanners.

It is about time. Since last March, this publication has been alerting passengers and workers about possible dangers. Not only are passengers, including pregnant women and children, streaming through these ill-conceived machines at risk, TSA workers are facing even more danger. I predict that a major class action suit by TSA workers against the government for radiation poisoning is only a matter of time.

Effectiveness questions
Most Americans according to polls seem to feel that whole body scanners are fine if they help prevent terrorist acts. But what would they feel about going through this entire rigmarole if the machines were proved ineffective. That may be the case.

The two scientists most responsible for the development magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines used in hospitals have reached the conclusion that these currently deployed contraptions are not effective at preventing terrorists from carrying explosives aboard aircraft.

Basically, Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson, described as the “scientific genius” behind the MRIs, claim that TSA and the manufactureres, in order to show effectiveness, have biased the studies and left out known limitations of the machines.

Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carlson showed less restraint in a peer-reviewed article posted online Nov. 26 by The Journal of Transportation Security. They created a computer model to simulate scanner operation and conclude an Islamic terrorist could easily sneak a large quantity of explosives past the device. “It is very likely that a large (15-20 cm in diameter), irregularly-shaped, cm-thick pancake with beveled edges, taped to the abdomen, would be invisible to this technology, ironically, because of its large volume, since it is easily confused with normal anatomy,” the study explains.

The researchers pointed out that the manufacturers of airport scanners positioned contraband like guns, knives and drugs in unnatural ways to conceal the limitations of their device. For example, the simulated drugs are always packed into tight rectangles that show up distinctly on the machine. TSA employees would have a far more difficult time spotting less tidy terrorists. “The eye is a good signal averager at certain spatial frequencies, but it is doubtful that an operator can be trained to detect these differences unless the material is hard-edged, not too large and regular shaped,” Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Carlson wrote.

Theirs is not the only such study. Last March the government’s own GAO reported that it was “unclear” whether airport scanners would have detected Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s botched Christmas Day underwear bombing attempt.

As TSA begins to touch more and more Americans in ways that they feel “ain’t right,” and more whole body scanners are deployed, the concerns of the public will increase. Even TSA officials admit that less that 10 percent of the flying public have faced a whole body scanner or an enhanced pat-down and there is already an uproar.

Add to that, radiation questions that are sure to emerge from these latest investigations and scientific evidence that the whole body scanner billion-dollar contraptions can’t spot a reasonably well-hidden bomb and TSA is going to have a growing problem.